United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division
January 10, 2017
RONNIE MATTHEW COUSINS, Plaintiff,
JUSTIN R. ARONSON, Defendant.
M. HILTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for
12, 2012, Justin R. Aronson ("Defendant"), who was
then a sergeant with the Chesterfield County Police
Department, was dispatched to the scene of a hit and run
accident. At the scene, Defendant found an injured woman
named Tenisha Towns ("Towns"), who reported that
her black, male friend had crashed into a guardrail and then
left her on the side of the road after the crash while he
fled north in the car.
Defendant spoke with Towns, he observed that her cell phone
was ringing continuously. Towns identified the caller as her
male friend who had just been driving the vehicle that had
crashed into the guardrail. She allowed Defendant to answer
one of the calls, but the caller refused to speak with
Defendant. Towns gave the caller's phone number to
an ambulance arrived to transport Towns to a hospital to care
for the head-wound she received in the crash, Defendant
returned to his squad car. He overheard the ambulance driver
on the radio reporting a wrecked, abandoned car less than a
quarter of mile north of the crash scene. Towns had reported
that the driver had left in that same direction.
drove north in the direction reported by the ambulance driver
until he found an abandoned car with a heavily damaged front
end. While waiting for a tow truck for the car, Defendant
requested that other patrol officers set up a loose perimeter
to search the area for anyone who appeared injured or fleeing
the scene. One of the officers on patrol found a black male,
later identified as Ronnie Matthew Cousins
("Plaintiff")/ walking along the road in the same
officer detained Plaintiff. Upon arriving at the intersection
where Plaintiff was detained, Defendant asked the dispatcher
to call the number Towns had provided him for the driver of
the vehicle. The dispatcher called the number, and a phone in
Plaintiff's pocket started ringing. Defendant arrested
Plaintiff for felony hit and run. After reading Plaintiff his
Miranda rights, Defendant invited Plaintiff to participate in
several voluntary field sobriety tests and a preliminary
breath test ("PBT"). Plaintiff consented to the
tests and failed all of them. The PBT revealed that the
alcohol content in his body was 0.103, which is over
Virginia's limit of 0.08.
on Defendant's sworn statements, a magistrate found
probable cause that Plaintiff committed four crimes: felony
hit and run in violation of § 46.2-894, unauthorized use
of a motor vehicle in violation of § 18.2-102, driving
under the influence in violation of § 18.2-266, and
driving with a suspended license in violation of §
46.2-301. The magistrate issued a warrant for each crime, and
Defendant served the warrants on Plaintiff.
misdemeanor charges for driving under the influence and
driving with a suspended license, Plaintiff stipulated to the
sufficiency of the evidence. A grand jury indicted Plaintiff
for felony hit and run and felony unauthorized use of a
vehicle. After being found guilty at trial on all four
charges, Plaintiff unsuccessfully appealed his convictions to
the Virginia Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court of Virginia
denied his petition for appeal.
December 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed the present action under
42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant, who
is now a lieutenant with the Chesterfield County Police
Department, violated Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights.
Plaintiff argues that his Fourth Amendment rights were
violated because Defendant lacked probable cause to arrest
him. In a handwritten Complaint to this Court, Plaintiff
states that he is suing for false arrest, defamation,
wrongful imprisonment, pain and suffering, mental distress,
and emotional distress. Defendant moved for summary judgment
on November 17, 2016.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a court should grant
summary judgment if the pleadings and evidence show that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that
the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary
judgment, the court views the facts in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party. See Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Once a
motion for summary judgment is properly made, the opposing
party has the burden to show that a genuine dispute of
material fact exists. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v.
Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).
succeed on a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must prove that
his constitutional rights were violated by a person acting
under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S.
42, 48 (1988). If an arrest is made without probable cause,
the arrest violates a person's Fourth Amendment rights
and constitutes false arrest. See Miller v. Prince
George's Cty., MP, 475 F.3d 621, 627 (4th Cir.
2007). There is probable cause to arrest if based on the
totality of circumstances the arresting officer reasonably
believed that the suspect had committed the crime. See
Ralph v. Pepersack, 335 F.2d 128, 132 (4th Cir. 1964).
If probable cause exists to arrest the suspect, the officer
may ask questions and gather information regarding crimes not
initially supported with probable cause. See Seviqny v.
Dicksey, 846 F.2d 953, 958 (4th Cir. 1988).
while there is no question that Defendant was acting under
color of law, Plaintiff has failed to prove that Defendant
violated Plaintiff's constitutional rights. As long as
Defendant had a reasonable belief that Plaintiff committed
the suspected crime, Defendant did not violate
Plaintiff's rights. Defendant had a reasonable belief
that Plaintiff committed felony hit and run. He spoke with an
eye-witness to the crash-Tenisha Towns-who had provided a
physical description of the driver and the cell phone number
of the driver. Shortly thereafter, and in the same direction
that Towns said the driver had fled, Defendant found a car
with heavy front-end damage that could have been caused from
crashing into a guardrail. In the same vicinity, Defendant
found a man who matched the description provided by Towns and
observed the driver's cell phone ring in Plaintiff's
pocket. Based on these facts, Defendant had a reasonable
belief that Plaintiff committed felony hit and run. Thus,
Defendant had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff without a
incorrectly argues that his warrantless arrest violated his
rights because Defendant lacked probable cause to arrest for
the misdemeanors. This argument misstates the facts because
Plaintiff was arrested for felony hit and run, not for either
of the misdemeanors. The misdemeanor charges resulted from
Plaintiff's voluntary admissions and voluntary consent to
the PBT and field sobriety tests, which he failed. However,
the law is well-established that a police officer may use a
lawful arrest to ask questions and gather information related
to other crimes that were not originally supported with
probable cause. Thus, Plaintiff has failed to prove the
elements of a § 1983 claim.
even assuming arguendo that the arrest was unlawful,
Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. A police officer
is immune from civil liability unless he reasonably should
have known that his actions violated clearly established
constitutional rights. Rowland v. Perry, 41 F.3d
167, 172 (4th Cir. 1994). The officer must be on notice that
his conduct is unlawful. Miller, 475 F.3d at 631. As
explained above, it was objectively reasonable for Defendant
to conclude that Plaintiff had committed felony hit and run
based on the facts Defendant knew at the time. Even if
Defendant had been wrong in concluding that probable cause
existed to arrest Plaintiff, Defendant was not on notice that
arresting Plaintiff would violate clearly established law.
Thus, Defendant enjoys qualified immunity from civil
liability for his actions.
foregoing reasons, Plaintiff cannot succeed on any of his
claims. Thus, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on
all claims should be GRANTED. An appropriate order shall